My First Onsen (Hot Spring) Experience in Yufuin, Japan

19 Mar 2017
Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //

Let me tell you about my first (and second!) Onsen experience in Japan. Natural hot spring spas are an old Japanese tradition - and I'd watched many videos before my visit. But when you mix extremely hot water, complete nakedness and no knowledge of the language... well things get embarrassing...

So... Yufuin. Possibly the best area for Onsens on this side of Japan. The best time to arrive is in the late afternoon because all the day tourists have gone and the town is quieter, said our Lonely Planet book, and so we did.

As you come out of the train station you're faced with a single road taking you into town. In the background, mount Yufu rises, blushed with the stroke of the last rays of early Spring sun. The town has a magical vibe and you can feel it: like a thousand spirits are retreating for the day - the day might have been a crazy swirl of tourists, but now it's calm.

Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //

Our hotel for the night Yufuin Hotel Shuhokan, and it's located at the far end of the town. Past a stream and over a bridge. The sky starts getting darker, my muscles ache with the pain of carrying my rucksack. 

A Traditional Stay

I picked this hotel months ago. I was researching Yufuin and I wanted a hotel that wouldn't break the bank, but that offered traditional Japanese hospitality and their own Onsen on-site. I read about this Hotel on another blogger's page and after seeing the pictures, I was sold.

So we walked and walked in the dark for about 15 minutes until we saw some lights and a big building. This didn't look at all like a small traditional Japanese Hotel! It was a large business-like hotel, a pinkish block building that - in all honesty - didn't look like much.

Walking in, the first thing that hits you is the slight smell of cigarette smoke. Everyone smokes in Japan. When we are given directions to the amenities and let into our room, I'm more calm: it's a large and beautiful hotel, but it's a traditional hotel nonetheless. I spot a massage room and promptly book a Japanese massage session with Saito, an older gentleman who melted away all the knots in my back in 40 minutes.

The Japanese Room

Coming back to the room feeling utterly relaxed, I walked into two ladies who were just preparing our room for the night.

Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //

I loved watching them prepare the futons.

Traditional Japanese rooms are very bare and have one table and two chairs, and are normally empty of all else in the day, save for an area for your bags and an area for nice Japanese decoration. 

In the evening, the rooms are prepared for you to sleep. They take out the futons from the cupboards and put fresh sheets on them. 

I much prefer Japanese futons to our Western mattresses, and I was very surprised by this. You wouldn't think those thin futons on the floor are comfy, but they are the closest thing to heaven - I swear. As soon as your head touches the pillow, you are gone.

Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //

And so the beds were made, but we were by no means ready to go to bed!

The First Onsen Experience

We put on some Japanese robes on (hotels provide these) and headed upstairs to the Onsen.

Onsens are public and are separated between men & women. The idea is that you have an area to remove all of your clothes before you step into a shower area with little stools, shampoo, soap, makeup remover, etc. There are rows upon rows of these showers. 

This is what you do: you head out there stark naked. You sit on a stool. You look around completely baffled and slightly embarrassed to see what others are doing and you do the same. Essentially, cleanse the shiz out of yourself. Scrub, rub, lather, rinse and repeat. Hair, face, hands, feet... all of it. Until you're squeaky clean. 

If you have long hair, you tie it up in a bun. Then you enter the water slowly, bit by bit. It's steamy and super hot compared to being outside. Sit tight and relax until you're about to faint, then come out and relax again. Some people keep a cool towel nearby or put it on their heads.

In this particular hotel, there's an indoor Onsen and an outdoor one. So after sitting there for one and a half minutes I am hot hot hot. So I get out and follow the older ladies that got in just before me to the outdoor area.

The outdoor Onsen oversees the mountains and it is protected from the view of the male Onsen by bamboo. The steam is rising, white and thick through the night. The sky is now a velvety deep black blue and the only lights come from where I sit in the natural hot springs. I could stay here forever....

About an hour later, after having gone in and out of the hot springs several times to cool off and rest, I finally return to the changing area. I grab fresh towels and wrap my hair. I go to the mirrors where there are creams and lotions and potions, and start brushing my hair. My face is red and plumped. When I finish moisturising my face and drying my hair, I find the rattan box where I left my clothes and get dressed in the Yutaka. I head out to meet Chris - it's nearly dinner time!

A Most Adventurous Dinner

For dinner we walk around town without much luck. In this small town, and on this part of town, restaurants don't have obvious signs or windows so that you can recognise them. All we see are the Japanese panel doors slid shut and lights flickering behind them. We can hear people laughing, chatting, cheering behind them.

We slide a few doors open. All of them are restaurants - but most are shutting for the night.

We finally find a dodgy-looking seafood restaurant full of genuine seafarer's memorabilia. We're welcomed by a lady who is easily 120 years old. At the back we can see her husband in white - the chef - also about 120. The place is empty except for 6 raucous Japanese young men sat at one of the tables near the front. This will do.

We take our shoes off and climb onto the raised platform, crossing our legs under the table. We look around. No English signs. No English menus. The old lady speaks no English.

We point at several things at random and she smiles. "Hai!" she says, and retreats.

What she brings back is exciting, new and I'm not sure I want to eat it. But I'm hungry and she's smiling and egging us on, watching. So we pick up a few bits and chew. It's good, it's really good.

At some point throughout the night we laugh at the boys next to us eating some sort of sea snail and they turn to us - the old lady watching again and challenge us to eat some. I laugh and grab one, close my eyes and eat it. They cheer loudly. It's actually not too bad. 

The Second Onsen Experience (where I disgraced myself)

The next morning we go to the main restaurant to have our breakfast. Breakfast comes with the room booking and is a set meal, consisting of lots of small dishes. Our table overlooks Mount Yufu and the breakfast brought to us looks amazing. Colourful and delicious. Chris cracks his raw egg on his rice and has to eat it anyway in order not to dishonour himself.

Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //
The view from the breakfast room
Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //
Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //

After breakfast we rent bikes from the hotel and set off to explore further afield. We've armed ourselves with the best tips on which Onsen to visit, so we make a winding route to some temples before we reach the main Onsen we want to see.

Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //
Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //

The Onsen is called Musouen (700Y) and it has several different options - even a family Onsen. Chris and I go our separate ways at this point, both choosing the Rotenburo (outdoor onsen), and each head into our own areas.

This is another worldly experience. It's the same ritual as the night before, but this time I know what to do. So I head out into the open where there are dozens and dozens of women already enjoying the outdoor hot springs.

Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //
Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //
Musouen Onsen - Image from 
It's funny how I'm not embarrassed of being naked in front of Japanese women, but as soon as I spot some Westeners I'm sinking in the water fast until it reaches my chin. In my haste, I've forgotten to tie my hair back, and promptly a plump woman in her 50s comes out running towards me with a hairband. What a scene! I wish the hot spring would swallow me, but pretend it's all cool and tie my hair up. Slowly, I find my way to some rocks behind which I can hide my bruised pride.

This outdoor Onsen also overlooks a mountain. It's more spacious than the hotel's and it has trees, flowers, rocks... it's a garden of tranquility and calm. 

I sit there and stew until I can't handle it anymore, and then head out.

It Ends with a BBQ

At this point Chris and I figure that, if we want to make it to Kyoto today, we have to rush to take the 4PM train. It's about 2PM now and we haven't had lunch, so we race out of the Onsen and cycle back to the hotel. We grab our bags and do the 15 minute walk back towards the train station. A couple of shops away from the station is a Yakitori restaurant, a Japanese BBQ restaurant where you can order raw cuts of meat and grill them yourself on your table. It's a fast and delicious option, so we nip in there for a last feast before we leave Yufuin.

Yufuin's Onsen Spas: Unmissable Japanese Experience //

I'll always remember Yufuin as, hands down, the best of all the experiences I had in Japan.

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